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Ridin' a Lowcountry high

Zipping through Hilton Head forest

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POSTED: June 13, 2013 11:09 a.m.
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Jeremy Childers zips above Broad Creek at Zipline Hilton Head

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From a wooden platform 75 feet off the ground in a loblolly pine, the world appears uncannily peaceful.

The tops of the trees sway gently. Ospreys dance in the breeze. Boats putt along Broad Creek, the halcyon tributary that bisects Hilton Head Island.

Then the tranquility dissolves as you step off the platform with awhoosh, screaming like a banshee the entire way.

Fortunately, you're harnessed to a steel cable, one of eight that crisscross this stretch of pristine patch of maritime forest. A friendly guide waits at the next platform and secures you with a clip. Now safely leaning against the high branch of a lovely live oak, all you can think is"When do I get to go next?!"

Tucked back into the island's north side, Zipline Hilton Head is entering its second summer of high adventure. Boasting seven platforms, three towers, two suspension bridges and eight lines referred to as "zips," the facility opened in April 2012 to a spectacular following as one of the most exciting and unique activities in the Lowcountry.

Appropriate for ages 10 and up weighing at least 80 pounds, the zipline tour takes a total of two hours and begins with a briefing from one of the aforementioned guides. Spunky, athletic and unfailingly polite, the guides play a vital part in the overall experience. Trained not only in the tour's technical aspects, this collection of college kids and local outdoorfolk can also expertly allay any fear factor one might have about jumping out of very tall trees and towers.

"Don't look down," advises the pink-haired Olivia Leeds. "Just sit comfortably in your harness. Have fun! Yeeaahhh!"

A recent graduate from North Georgia College with a degree in physics, Leeds assures that the cables and carribeeners are scientifically tested. To demonstrate, her sprightly guide partner, Ashley Atkins, pushes off with a sneakered toe and sails out above the forest floor.

The course was engineered by national adventure challenge firm S.T.E.P.S, Inc. and implemented by local builders who utilized over 27,000 bolts. It was designed to artfully blend into its surroundings as well as withstand a Category 3 hurricane, should the occasion arise.Though this may be the Lowcountry, be prepared for a change in elevation.

"As your skills get better, the course gets a little faster, a little higher," grins General Manager Rob DeCanio. "You get views you can't get anywhere else."

The most breathtaking vantage point is from the 75-foot Crow's Nest, which exceeds the lighthouse in Harbour Town by three feet and is the tallest visitable point on the island, unless you work for the phone company. Keeping with Hilton Head's overarching philosophy and practice of environmental synthesis, nothing of the course mars the view from the water.

The commitment to the island's indigenous ecology is reflected in the hiring of DeCanio, an interpretative naturalist and former Survivorcontestant whose last gig was leading people on three week journeys through the Amazonian jungle.

"I try to explain nature in meaningful ways, so that anyone from a 5 year-old to a Ph.D. candidate can appreciate what we have here," he says.

This glorious amalgam of engineering and nature almost didn't happen: The area was once slated to be covered with high-end condos, but after the 2009 real estate crash, owners Roger and Pam Freeman decided to rethink their original plan to develop this untouched acreage.

"It turned out to be a blessing in disguise," says Roger, a seasoned businessman in his 60s who foresaw a niche for Hilton Head's 2.5 million visitors a year. "We've highlighted the best aspects of the area and have become a tremendous asset for the island itself."

There's real truth in that statement: TripAdvisor, the globe's number one user-generated travel site, recently awarded Zipline Hilton Head a 2013 Certificate of Distinction for its consistently high marks from participants, placing it in the top 10 percent of attractions in the entire world.

"I think we received the award because we're truly focused on giving people a good time," ponders Roger. "This is the only vacation some of these folks get all year, and we want it to be fantastic for them."

Leaving the majority of the property intact, the Freemans have also monetized their land with a drydock boat storage unit as well as a restaurant, Up the Creek Pub. The pub attracts a relaxed evening crowd for beers and live music and uses local seafood as well as produce from its on-site garden, bursting with tomatoes, basil and peppers.

"We're very proud of the garden," says DeCanio in a brief moment of respite between tours.

He'll be overseeing up to 36 tours a day through Labor Day, including sunset trips that include a view of fireworks set off at Shelter Cover on Tuesday nights.

He also shares that the best days for locals to zipline during the summer are on the weekends, as Saturdays-Mondays are usually turnover days for vacationers. Tours are $89 per person plus tax, and $20 will buy you a single thrill ride on the racing line.

Tours run in groups of eight, so you and your smaller crew may share this experience with total strangers. By the third or fourth zip, however, most groups have bonded like they've known each other for years.

"Nothing like a little danger and adventure to make everyone feel like family," laughs guide Atkins as she zips off across the forest, leading the way.

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